The advertising industry exists at all because it has been proven to be massively influential. With great power then, comes great responsibility; and advertisers should take more responsibility for their contribution to the fabric of our society. We all participate in and perpetuate many widely-accepted myths. Some examples of “normal” myths include:
- The “perfect” body (often white, thin, young, beautiful, cis, able-bodied, without blemish or dimple) versus the “imperfect” body, which is weird or in need of improvement
- The able-bodied white man as the Default American
- Physical appearance or sexual appeal as the most important trait in a woman, and that a woman’s worth is dependent on a man’s opinion of her
- Racial stereotypes (i.e. Asian Americans as the “model minority“)
These kinds of myths presented as common sense and often exaggerated in the name of comedy can have profound effects on everyone. As a young woman, all of the commercials I’ve seen in my life boil down to this message: I must keep up my appearances; and if I do, men will be mesmerized by my body and find me worthy of attention. They still will not want to hear me speak.
And I know that my personal experience with advertising doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, because as a young, thin, able-bodied, straight, white woman, the only privilege from which I do not benefit is male privilege. What effects do those myths have on people with identities much farther from the “norm,” especially when they are exposed to it as children?
In her interview with Glamour Magazine, Lupita Nyong’o discusses the influence of advertising:
“I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn’t get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn’t hearing this from my immediate family — my mother never said anything to that effect — but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents.”
She hits on a couple of very important points here, the first being that this commercial told her that dark skin is unacceptable or makes her less worthy of a job. The second is that “the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents.” This is a key insight; advertisers should not be free from responsibility just because it’s the parent’s responsibility to raise their own children. Parents cannot be everywhere at once, and they are not always prepared to help their children navigate advertising–especially when ads are designed to influence the parents as well! In addition, parents are not always seen as the most credible source of social guidance by their children; TV is often a child’s window to the rest of the world.
The lack of diversity and reinforcement of myths in ads is probably never intentional, but I think that we have a duty to be more conscious and careful about what message we are sending, intentional and otherwise.